I don’t know about you, but I’m finding having people over for dinner is getting complicated.
First, there are the scheduling issues. Who is available when, and can we please — please! — manage to get together, all of us, just this once this year? OK, how about once this decade? This lifetime?
And then there’s the food. With every invitation I send out, I’m tempted to include a dietary-needs declaration form to be filled in and returned with the RSVP. Maybe guests can arrange for their family doctors to sign it, too, or have it notarized. You know, in case they forget something critical.
One friend calls our circle of mutual friends the Picky Eaters Club. We include the usual assortment of celiac cases, nut and dairy allergies, vegetarians and blood-sugar problems. We also have some well-meaning foodists — those who choose a particular life or eating style for moral or philosophical reasons, or for just plain personal preference.
For instance, one vegetarian eschews meat in all ways except when it comes as a hamburger. Another eats meat whenever he forgets he’s vegetarian, which is sufficiently frequently that we’re wondering if an appointment with the neurologist is overdue.
We make a special effort to accommodate the person who gets gassy from garlic. We’ve experienced the unfortunate consequences when we don’t. Another person finds anything more flavourful than boiled potatoes too spicy. She gets to enjoy her very own plate of specially prepared, steamed stodge.
The resident vegan considerately brings food that meets her own edibility requirements, even if the dinner party isn’t a potluck. The whole foodist also brings her own meal. One celiac brings her own bread.
We’ve become used to the arrangement and now encourage it. However, newcomers to the crowd often make gimlet eyes and throw quiet hissy fits when they first encounter the Picky Eaters Club. Judgment comes either when somebody doesn’t share their single serving of luscious dairy-, gluten-, nut-, salt-, fat-, egg-, vegetable- and meat-free ambrosia, or when one of the particularly picky eaters waves aside communal offerings in favour of their own fixin’s.
Those who have not yet been thoroughly inducted into the ways of the Picky Eaters Club sometimes take it personally when meals eaten together do not involve the universal sharing of food.
Of course, they are simply reacting to what might be an egregious casting off of the usual social contract that comes with eating together. Perhaps our old-timey social brains interpret that, by not eating food prepared for and partaken by the rest of the group, dietary outliers are withholding trust from the group.
Or worse yet, perhaps those who disdain to eat from the communal pot know something the rest of us do not.
At one time, the reaction might have made social sense. Culture is defined by food as much as it is by dress, handicrafts, music and dance. Those who wouldn’t share food were self-identifying as outsiders, and therefore untrustworthy. In those times past, before the likes of Louis Pasteur and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek broadened our understanding of bacteria and the other microbes, those who did not eat from the common pot, and thereby escaped food poisoning or parasites, were fingered as witches who had evil eyes and revelled in black magic.
Today, of course, with rampant food allergies and sensitivities, with ever-increasing digestive and gastric conditions, and with the global mingling of cultures and religions with their own food rules, we’re supposed to be more open to diversity at the dinner table.
And really, what does it matter what our neighbour eats, as long as we’re sitting at the same table, with respect and as equals?
So I’m offering this simple note to picky eaters everywhere: Although it’s been said many times, many ways, happy, well-seasoned feasting to you.
Whatever your feast entails.